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Northern Streams: Future//Present at VIFF 2017

The 2nd year of Vancouver's program of emerging Canadian filmmakers takes chances, offering higher highs and lower lows than in 2016.
PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams)
The 36th Vancouver Film Festival recently wrapped, and with it, the second year of the Future//Present program, a selection of eight features (and a number of shorts) dedicated to emerging Canadian filmmakers. If the inaugural edition had the task of distinguishing itself from the rest of the festival's True North “stream,” this year's offered the opportunity to cement its relevancy and expand its vision. That's something for which the admirably varied program proved more or less able, albeit with higher highs and lower lows than in 2016, which speaks, at least, to chances being taken (something that can't necessarily be said of the festival's programming in general). Taken on the whole, there are—beyond the uniting sensibility of critic and programmer Adam Cook—filmmaking trends that one could identify, and patterns that one could connect, for better and for worse, to the larger contemporary arthouse scene. But the most successful selections, at least, felt firmly unconcerned with immediate relevance, decisively decoupled from calcified festival fare. It remains to be seen whether Future//Present will become a fixture, but at its very best, the program certainly points the way forward.
That can’t quite be said of Sophie Goyette's Still Night, Still Light, a placid, if overly familiar rumination on existence, of lives caught in a state of suspension (though the film did receive the Bright Future Award at Rotterdam earlier this year). Three lives, three generations, and three different locations (Montreal, Mexico City, China). In essence, Goyette’s film is an articulation of “the boundaries between two worlds”—dreaming and waking, life and death—and the point at which these meet, though the narrative often seems content to deal in amorphous generalities of feeling rather than specific emotions. (Relevant photographs, which show the sea and sky blurring the horizon line, are helpfully discussed.) Abstract-leaning sequences that play with pointillist arrays of light, or strobing, shadowy effects can be ravishing to behold, but their context often fades into indistinctness, dissipating from memory soon after.
No such indistinctness crops up in Fail to Appear, Antoine Bourges’ fine, unassuming feature on the fundamental inadequacy of (Canadian) social institutions and support networks, particularly for those struggling with mental health issues or addiction. Moving away from the region of Vancouver that was the setting of his spare, riveting East Hastings Pharmacy (2012), the (now) Toronto-based filmmaker charts the meeting of two individuals: Isolde (Deragh Campbell), a fledgling social worker, and her client Eric (Nathan Roder), a man charged with theft and awaiting a court hearing, first introduced solely by a case file. Pointedly bifurcated to follow each character individually, the film structures itself around negative spaces, various gaps—in personal attention, social interaction, and institutional bureaucracy—and the incremental weight of what gets lost therein. Fail to Appear is a considered expansion of Bourges’ approach in East Hastings Pharmacy (documentary-like verisimilitude; use of non-actors), though it does trade in the compressed tension of that work for something more diffuse. Nonetheless, it’s a work born of intelligence and boundless curiosity, a finely crafted web of disconnection that methodically explores the limits of control.
Fail to Appear (Antoine Bourges)
More bombastic and markedly less incisive in its tackling of a systemic social issue is Cory Bowles’ satirical black comedy, Black Cop, which first bowed at Toronto before receiving the Best Canadian Film award at VIFF. Here, Bowles looks at the systems of racial injustice by flipping the dynamics of power towards its title police officer (Ronnie Rowe Jr.), who roams the streets of an unidentified every-city, dispensing abusive “authority” on white victims. (The initial close-up on Rowe Jr.’s dark-glassed visage draws a tenuous line to William Friedkin.) The result proves fitfully interesting, hampered somewhat by its scattershot stylistic choices, but ultimately crippled by its noncommittal endpoint: By scaling back the film’s satirical final sting in a dramatic monologue of queasy self-justification, Bowles doesn’t just blunt its impassioned force, but also actively muddles its overall thrust. For a film that should be defined by its self-awareness and the courage of its convictions—and it's unquestionably well-intentioned—its lingering impression is, paradoxically, of a blinkered effort.
Black Cop is one of three films in Future//Present by Nova Scotia-born directors (following Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf from last year), the other two being Jacquelyn Mills’ In the Waves and Winston DeGiobbi’s Mass for Shut-Ins, both features tethered to the specifics of their native locales. (If this is the beginning of a full-blown filmmaking wave—and here it's worth mentioning Seth A. Smith's The Crescent, which played the festival's Altered States program—then all credit to Cook for recognizing it.) Mills’ impressionistic documentary of her grandmother evokes spaces of maternal domesticity within the swirling passage of the natural world. Seasons change in a flash; the night sky rushes past in a celestial reverie; the flow of time itself expands and compresses, tethered not to narrative incident, but to surges of memory and tides of emotion. Meanwhile, DeGiobbi’s film, which takes its title from the long-running, literally-named Sunday program of the local diocese, evokes a stunted world: the island of Cape Breton as a Sisyphean purgatory of sorts, suspended in inky, proto-Lynchian blackness, its everyday spaces limned in terrifyingly banal, inescapable detail. Stuttering stylistic flourishes suggest no less than time looping back on itself, like an endless game of bingo.
From closer to home is Vancouver-based filmmaker Matthew Taylor Blais, who follows up his short film “Popsong” from last year, with Forest Movie, a slim, non-narrative tale of a young woman who ventures, naturally, into a forest (shot in Pacific Spirit Regional Park). The film opens promisingly enough: layered shots of woods and foliage are superimposed over a young woman’s sleeping face, on which are projected various colorful images (impossible to make out), all accompanied by a persistent, dissonant ringing. Eventually, though, the film progresses towards a defining formal move that one could charitably connect to the observational rigor of, say, James Benning, but that more closely resembles an act of arthouse provocation devoid of discernible purpose, in the sense of a filmmaker’s intent translating to what’s actually on screen. In overall conception—from its purported study of natural landscapes, sounds and shifting plays of light, to its evocation of a precipice moment for its central figure, to even its belated slip into enveloping darkness—Forest Movie recalls, though also compares unfavorably to Damien Manivel’s quietly striking Le parc (2016), absent as Blais' film is of a framework that would actually vitalize its ideas. It’s an unfortunate misstep for both Blais and the program as a whole, since it represents a widening of boundaries—made literal over the course of the film—in precisely the wrong direction.
Maison du bonheur (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
A step in the right one: bringing back Sofia Bohdanowicz, the recipient of last year’s Emerging Canadian Director award, who returns with Maison du bonheur, a documentary on Juliane Sellame, a recently widowed astrologer who’s lived in the same Hausmannian building in Paris for over five decades. If Bohdanowicz's previous films indicate a kinship with Chantal Akerman (still very much evident), Maison du bonheur draws a direct line to the sprightly, endlessly curious eye of Agnès Varda (not to mention her particular attention to female domesticity; the title itself practically invokes Le bonheur [1965]). Its brisk runtime embodies a particularly French epicurean curiosity, moving along with vibrant rhythms and a lush, textured 16 mm palette (shot entirely using a Bolex camera), guided by Bohdanowicz’s ability to build a film from graceful accumulations of ostensibly ordinary detail. Juliane’s domestic rituals and sources of pleasure provide the framework; her vibrant personality and open demeanor infuse the images with infectious charm. (In a post-screening Q&A, Bohdanowicz described how she composed the film's foley track by recreating Juliane’s actions, which she’s captured over the course of her visit.) But Maison is, perhaps, even more compelling for its absences and elisions: unasked questions—about Juliane’s astrologer husband, foremost—that persist and accumulate throughout the runtime; the reason for Bohdanowicz's mid-film trip to Deauville (a location that clearly holds a measure of grief for her), from which she returns almost immediately; even her own absence from in front of the camera, which, in moments both playful and playfully confessional, she can’t seem to help but fill. It’s the latest in what—just two features and a number of shorts into Bohdanowicz’s career—already feels like a larger investigation into the materials of memory and the infinities therein. And if the subsequent entry is selected for next year’s program, it would be a more than welcome addition.
The program’s most daring selection, however—which premiered at Locarno, played TIFF’s Wavelengths program and was here hailed as a highlight by those lucky enough to see it—represents a new direction entirely: Blake Williams’ PROTOTYPE, quite possibly the most significant 3-D effort since Godard’s Adieu au langage (2014). The Houston-born, Toronto-based critic and filmmaker has experimented with the possibilities of 3-D for the better part of a decade (anaglyph, previously; polarized, here), a fact demonstrated over the course of his debut feature’s virtuosic 63 minutes. Fittingly, perhaps, for working a medium that’s flitted in and out of relevancy throughout the course of cinema history (as Williams himself pointed out in the post-screening Q&A), it opens with disaster: the hurricane that ravaged Galveston, Texas in 1900. Still, sepia-toned stereoscopic images of the storm’s aftermath—a three-pronged acknowledgment: of historical disaster, the media on which it was recorded, and the media through which it’s now being viewed—are offered in deliberate succession; then, a set of monitors fill the frame, flickering and humming forebodingly, suspended in an inky-black void. From there, the film progresses—sometimes inscrutably, always thrillingly—through various, increasingly abstract movements.
An early sequence, a recreation of the storm by overlapping, volumetric streams of liquid coursing across the frame, is a dizzying reorientation of space (in the tradition set out by Michael Snow's La région centrale [1971]) and achieves an effect as discombobulating and gorgeously distended as the slowed-down strains of Marilyn Monroe’s “River of No Return” that score it. Primitive vehicles are driven into the screen; futuristic visions move past in a garish, gleaming mechanical rush; a rodeo sequence (all but indistinguishable) and its notably differently-sighted equine figures mark a destabilizing plunge into abstraction. Meanwhile, (proto-)Lynchian soundscapes persist throughout, abetting the viewer’s gradual, hallucinatory slip into a fugue-like state.
Past and present, projections of reality or imagination—all warp and merge in this uncertain space, where a vision of the past and imagined future are given shape and form by “impossible” machines (the vintage Philco television screens in stereoscopic 3-D) and seen through a perpetually prototypical media. It’s a staggering vision—not just the best film in Future//Present, but one of the most striking films of the year, by any measure. Taken as a whole, Williams’ film is no less than an arrangement, a rendering of (media) history from disaster to disaster. An imaginary prototype, then, to channel impossible desires—past, present and future.

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